SBJ/May 20-26, 2013/Marketing and Sponsorship

MiLB merchandise sales near record level

The Class A Savannah (Ga.) Sand Gnats and Class AA Pensacola (Fla.) Blue Wahoos, two clubs with vastly different baseball histories, are first-time entrants on the list of Minor League Baseball clubs that generated the most merchandise sales last year, according to data obtained by SportsBusiness Journal and scheduled to be released by MiLB today.

The 160 U.S.- and Canada-based clubs affiliated with MLB teams collectively generated $54 million in 2012 through the sale of apparel, headwear and novelties, up 3 percent from 2011 and trailing only pre-recession 2008 as MiLB’s highest annual total.

 
The Savannah Sand Gnats have found success after working on improving product quality.
Photo by: SAVANNAH SAND GNATS (2)

While MiLB’s 2012 roster of top-selling clubs is stocked with familiar, nationally recognized names, including the Durham (N.C.) Bulls and Toledo (Ohio) Mud Hens, regional support continues to bolster the bottom lines of lesser-known franchises.

Jeremy Auker, vice president of business development for the Sand Gnats, said the club (a New York Mets’ affiliate) saw a 74 percent increase in merchandise sales from 2009 to 2012. He credited that growth to a smarter mix and higher quality of merchandise offerings than in years past, the result of the team’s analysis of area demographics.

“When [ownership group] Hardball Capital bought the team in 2008, most of the merchandise was low quality and it was all pretty basic stuff,” Auker said. “We brought in Nike and Retro Brand and a lot of higher quality licensed vendors, and that’s made a big difference. People will pay more money if it’s good quality, and that helps the bottom line.”

The Sand Gnats’ predecessor, the Savannah Cardinals (who played from 1984-95), did make the minor-league sales list once, in 1993, the first year MiLB tracked such sales. But the Sand Gnats (as the team has been known since 1996) had been shut out from the annual list each year of its franchise existence — prior to 2012.

Land shark! Foam shark and wahoo hats were surprisingly strong sellers for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
Photo by: PENSACOLA BLUE WAHOOS

Auker said the demographics in Savannah are more diverse than most MiLB markets. For example, Savannah College of Art and Design has more than 10,000 students and is located near the ballpark. Auker said those students tend to appreciate merchandise that is “way off the beaten trail.” Additionally, more than 35 percent of the Savannah market is African-American, so the club has significantly increased its inventory of snapback caps and other apparel that has an urban feel.

Approximately 35 percent of the team’s sales incorporate an image of the club’s mascot, which is a big increase over a few years ago, before the cartoon-like Gnate the Gnat replaced the team’s bodybuilder-like mascot, Gnic.

Auker said he also “leans a lot” on Karen Schieber, merchandise manager of the Class A Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps, a sister team under the same ownership group. The TinCaps have made MiLB’s list the past four seasons (and six times overall), and the teams often share best practices.

Top 25 MiLB clubs for merchandise sales in 2012

TEAM (LEVEL) NUMBER OF YEARS IN TOP 25*
Albuquerque Isotopes (AAA) 8
Carolina Mudcats (High A) 15
Columbus Clippers (AAA) 3
Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) 8^
Durham Bulls (AAA) 20^
Fort Wayne TinCaps (A) 6
Greensboro Grasshoppers (A) 9
Indianapolis Indians (AAA) 11
Lake Elsinore Storm (High A) 15
Lakewood BlueClaws (A) 12^
Lehigh Valley IronPigs (AAA) 5^
Midland RockHounds (AA) 7
Pawtucket Red Sox (AAA) 15
Pensacola Blue Wahoos (AA) 1^
Portland Sea Dogs (AA) 20^
Reno Aces (AAA) 4^
Richmond Flying Squirrels (AA) 3^
Rochester Red Wings (AAA) 15
Round Rock Express (AAA) 13^
Sacramento River Cats (AAA) 13^
Salt Lake Bees (AAA) 8
Savannah Sand Gnats (A) 1
Toledo Mud Hens (AAA) 18
Trenton Thunder (AA) 19^
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (A) 15

Note: Teams listed alphabetically. Rankings and team-specific sales data were not available. Teams in bold were not in the top 25 for 2011. Teams that fell out of the top 25 from that 2011 list are the Charleston RiverDogs (A), Lansing Lugnuts (A), Louisville Bats (AAA), Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High A) and Omaha Storm Chasers (AAA).
* Since 1993, the first season MiLB began tracking sales data.
^ Ranked every year of team’s existence and/or every season since 1993, the first season MiLB began tracking sales data.
Source: Minor League Baseball

In Pensacola, merchandise revenue in 2012 for the first-year Blue Wahoos, a Cincinnati Reds’ affiliate, was triple what the team’s internal market data and MiLB-provided research had projected. Donna Kirby, who operates the merchandise business for the club, said the team played it safe with most of last year’s merchandise offerings, opting to go with many basic apparel items that were designed to get the Blue Wahoos’ logos out into the marketplace. The staff conducted surveys of fans after every game, and team officials met regularly to go over what was selling, what wasn’t and why. Such communication allowed them to adjust orders throughout the season and during the offseason.

“Our per caps last year were through the roof and are trending even higher this year,” Kirby said. “We use the per caps to give us a gauge on if we are giving our customers the assortment that they want. In mid-May last year, we went to Nike and asked about Dri-Fit T-shirts that we hadn’t even thought about [but that fans had asked about]. They shipped us four colors with our logo, and we sold out of three of the four colors.”

Kirby said one of the biggest sellers, and surprises, was the sale of foam shark and wahoo hats made by Foamworx in Nova Scotia. “We had to keep reordering and reordering those,” she said.

Five MLB clubs had two affiliates each on the top 25 list: Boston (Pawtucket and Portland), Cleveland (Columbus and Carolina), Oakland (Sacramento and Midland), Philadelphia (Lehigh Valley and Lakewood) and San Diego (Lake Elsinore and Fort Wayne).

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